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United States v. Caputo

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 19, 2016



          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge

         Federal law prohibits individuals from entering the White House grounds and other restricted areas without the lawful authority to do so. The Government charged Joseph Caputo with violating a provision of this law, 18 U.S.C. § 1752(a)(1), after he hurdled one of the White House’s perimeter fences and triggered a lockdown of the entire White House complex. Caputo seeks dismissal of the sole charge against him. He claims that his escapade constituted symbolic speech because he scaled the White House fence to highlight flaws in our national security. The unlawful entry statute, Caputo contends, thus violates the First Amendment both on its face and as applied to him. Alternatively, Caputo argues that the statute is void for vagueness. These arguments border on frivolous. Section 1752(a)(1) is facially valid because it does not prohibit a substantial amount of protected speech. There is, after all, no First Amendment right to express one’s self in a nonpublic area like the White House. Section 1752(a)(1) is also constitutional as applied to Caputo’s actions, because the Government is entirely justified in prohibiting even symbolic breaches of White House security. Finally, the statue is not unconstitutionally vague, as the unlawfulness of entering the White House grounds without permission is unambiguous to the average citizen. The Court will therefore deny Caputo’s motion to dismiss the Information.

         I. Background

         A. The November 26, 2015 Incident

         Joseph Caputo climbed up and over the White House fence on Thanksgiving Day, 2015. Secret Service officers rushed to stop his ascent but were unsuccessful. Upon landing on the North Lawn, the government alleges that Caputo ran toward the White House. See Govt.’s Opp’n Def.’s Mot. Dismiss 2-3 (“Govt.’s Opp’n”). Caputo insists that he immediately surrendered upon scaling the fence. See Def.’s Mot. Dismiss 1-2. Caputo was swiftly apprehended regardless, and the intrusion prompted a lockdown of the White House complex. Govt.’s Opp’n 3. At the time of his arrest, Caputo was wearing the American flag as a cape and was carrying, among other things, a pocket Constitution. See Def.’s Mot. Dismiss 2; Govt.’s Opp’n 2. He was unarmed.

         B. 18 U.S.C. § 1752(a)(1)

         The Government subsequently filed a one-count Information charging Caputo under the federal unlawful-entry statute, which imposes criminal penalties upon anyone who “knowingly enters or remains in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so.” 18 U.S.C. § 1752(a)(1). The statute defines “restricted buildings or grounds” as “any posted, cordoned off, or otherwise restricted area … of the White House or its grounds, or the Vice President’s official residence or its grounds.” § 1752(c)(1)(A). Restricted building or grounds also include those “where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting” and those “so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance.” § 1752(c)(1)(B); § 1752(c)(1)(C). In other words, any individual who unlawfully enters the White House grounds-or other restricted areas as defined in the statute-violates the statute.

         C. Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss

         Caputo moved to dismiss the Information on June 6, 2016. He argues that 18 U.S.C. § 1752(a)(1) violates the First Amendment-both on its face, and as applied to him. Def.’s Mot. Dismiss 9, 15. In support of his challenge, Caputo maintains that he breached the White House grounds with the “noble purpose” of “call[ing] attention to various deficiencies in the Constitution” and the Government’s failure “to pay attention to domestic issues.” Id. 2. These issues, he claims, are “demonstrated by the Government’s inability to solve a seemingly simple problem, such as the height of the White House fence.” Id. His caper was “inextricably linked” to the symbolic point he was making. Id.

         Invoking the overbreadth doctrine, he asserts that the statute “places a chilling and self-censorship effect on speech, ” id. at 12, and laments that “[t]he statute, by its very nature, would prevent all [White House] fence jumping protests seeking to illustrate that the fence was inadequate.” Def.’s Reply Govt.’s Opp’n 3. Caputo also argues that the law is unconstitutional because it is a content-based regulation, and cannot survive the requisite level of judicial scrutiny. Def.’s Mot. Dismiss 16. Finally, Caputo claims the statute is void for vagueness under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Id. at 13.

         The Government responds that § 1752(a)(1) is valid because it regulates conduct, not speech. See Govt.’s Opp’n 4. But the Government asserts that even if Caputo’s conduct includes both “nonspeech” and “speech” elements, the challenged statute is still justified by the Government’s interest in protecting the President and the White House grounds. Id. at 5-6. Finally, the Government contests Caputo’s claims that the statute is both content-based and void for vagueness. Id. at 7-8; 10.

         II. Standard of Review

         A criminal defendant “may raise by pretrial motion any defense, objection, or request that the court can determine without a trial on the merits.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b)(1). Pretrial motions may challenge “a defect in the indictment or information, ” as long as “the basis for the motion is then reasonably available and the motion can be determined without a trial on the merits.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b)(3)(B). See, e.g., United States v. Bronstein, 151 F.Supp.3d 31 (D.D.C. 2015) (reviewing a criminal defendant’s motion to dismiss an indictment on First Amendment grounds).

         III. ...

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